Today we salute the long and curious career of Herb Jeffries, considered America’s first black singing cowboy.
He died May 25 in West Hills, California; his age (never precisely nailed down) was put at somewhere near the century mark. He lived with joie de vivre throughout and maintained a certain style right to the end. An interesting performer often underrated and overlooked.
Depending on the source, Herbert Jeffrey (his surname was inadvertently changed to Jeffries thanks to a billing typo that he decided to adopt permanently) was born in Detroit either in 1909, 1911, 1913 or 1916, of a mixed-race marriage.
His white Irish mother operated a rooming house. Jeffries never knew his father, said to be an Ethiopian. Nonetheless, Jeffries presented himself professionally as a black performer. The subject of Jeffries’ race seemingly obsesses obit writers, particularly at The New York Times. Our view: care about talent not racial identity.
Jeffries was not an actor at first, but a jazz singer. And a good one.
At 19, he joined the Erskin Tate Orchestra at the Savoy Ballroom in Chicago. In 1931, he was hired away by Earl ‘Fatha’ Hines, and then shifted to Blanche Calloway’s band (she is Cab’s older sister) before installing himself in Los Angeles as vocalist-MC at popular watering hole known as Club Alabam.
Jeffries was a looker — tall, slender but muscular with a Latin look complete with pencil-line mustache.
It was in the late Thirties that movies beckoned. But such curious movies. There were five in all (one titled The Bronze Buckaroo), each a western starring Jeffries as the good guy dressed in black who sang from time to time. From then on Jeffries was widely referred to as “The Bronze Buckaroo.”
The production values were rudimentary, the cast was all Afro-American. To say that budgets were “bare minimal” would be hyperbole.
In 1938’s Harlem Rides The Range, Jeffries stars as “Bob Blake,” a straight-shooting Lone Ranger type who extricates a virtuous maiden’s family from the clutches of a greedy landlord and his libidinous wife.
The Merit Pictures production (Merit Pictures?) opens with Jeffries vocalizing with a backup quartet, but then gets on with the action sans songs but with comic overtones. Included in the cast is veteran character actor Mantan Moreland, whose onscreen antics are too often dismissed today — unfairly, in our view — as un-PC.
When initially released, these westerns were probably never seen by white audiences. Instead, they played the black theater circuits back in those segregated times.
Jeffries made his most lasting mark as a singer when he joined the Duke Ellington Orchestra, becoming most closely identified with his superb interpretation of “Flamingo.” It was Jeffries’ first recording with the Ellington band, on Dec. 28, 1940, and became a huge hit.
Jeffries ranks as one of the best singers Ellington ever hired. From this period on through the late Fifties, Jeffries concentrated on his musical career. Interestingly, Ellington encouraged Jeffries to lower his natural tenor voice to sound more like Bing Crosby. Recalled Jeffries, Duke thought Bing was one of the greatest baritones of all time.
From the late Fifties on, Jeffries returned to Hollywood, working extensively in television right into the mid Nineties.
He moved to Europe in earlier the Fifties, and ran a Paris night club for a while. He’s been married four times, once (for eight years) to legendary stripper Tempest Storm. Right to the end, Jeffries made appearances as “The Bronze Buckaroo,” perhaps the last of the singing cowboys.